August 20, 2002

Artificial turf has come a long way

  • Schools are discovering the benefits of next-generation surfaces
    David Evans and Associates

     Curtis High School Stadium
    Courtesy of Soundview Aerial Photography
    Synthetic turf was installed by Renton-based Tydico Inc. at Curtis High School Stadium in University Place. Synthetic fields are becoming more popular in communities because of their continuous availability and low maintenance costs.

    If you were to ask a student what his or her favorite subject in school is, chances are good the answer will be “recess!”

    Sports and recreation plays a big part in many students’ school years, often developing into a lifelong interest. With the wear and tear of time and growing numbers of athletes, it isn’t unusual for a school district to find its current recreational facilities inadequate to accommodate its current needs.

    Many facilities may need upgrading and, in some cases, additional fields need to be built. In either situation, choosing synthetic turf over natural grass fields can be a highly successful and cost-effective choice.

    Synthetic turf is most visible in the design of professional and collegiate athletic fields, but the products have evolved dramatically in the past several years. The next-generation products are generally composed of a thermoplastic fiber that is “tufted” and infilled with rubber, sand, or a combination of both, synthetic turf is also beginning to edge out natural grass in other landscaping applications, such as landscape planting islands, road medians and several golf course applications.

    This next generation of products is becoming a popular choice for school districts, city and county parks departments, and other organizations when designing or upgrading recreation facilities.

    There are several distinct advantages to using synthetic turf, including:

    Lower maintenance costs

    Artificial turf requires no mowing, watering, fertilizing, or re-seeding. Regular maintenance involves brushing and occasional vacuuming using leased, rented or loaned equipment.

    The typical sand-based soccer/football field can use between 2.5 million and 3.5 million gallons of water per year in the Pacific Northwest. Coupled with reduced labor costs related to maintenance, equipment and eliminated costs for supplies such as fertilizers, herbicides, and pesticides, several of our clients have seen a reduction in maintenance costs of as much as $30,000 to $60,000 per field, per year.

    Environmental friendliness

    Aside from the environmental advantages that come from lower water use, the removal of significant amounts of fertilizer and pesticides means less chance of contaminating groundwater, and safer field conditions for children, pets, and wildlife. In addition, synthetic turf is commonly made of recycled materials.

    One company that produces the new synthetic turf has a partnership with a major shoe label and incorporates ground-up recycled athletic shoes in their product. Other companies use recycled car tires in a similar way. The estimated average synthetic soccer/football field uses approximately 45,000 recycled tires that would otherwise take up space in a landfill or tire-waste site.

    Higher availability for use

    Barring local restrictions, synthetic turf is available to use 24 hours a day, seven days per week, 365 days per year. Artificial surfaces don’t become muddy in wet weather. They don’t need to lie fallow to allow recovery time from overuse. Studies of jurisdictions that have converted natural fields to synthetic turf suggest that field usage may be increased by a factor of three, with no reduction of field surface quality.

    Fewer injuries

    When the original artificial turf surfaces were introduced more than 30 years ago, a quickly built body of evidence suggested that natural playing surfaces were safer because their use resulted in fewer injuries, especially knee injuries.

    This situation has changed in recent years with the introduction of newer manufacturing and installation procedures. Some recent studies indicate that these new artificial surfaces are showing low injury rates that are a fraction of the injury rates from studies of earlier types of artificial surfaces. Surprisingly, in fact, these new rates are actually lower than the injury rates experienced on natural grass surfaces.

    When comparing synthetic turf products on the market versus natural grass, there appears to be only one way to go. With the maintenance savings, increased playability, usage increases and their associated increased revenues, and we see these facilities becoming important economic and community assets for the school districts and municipalities that invest in them.

    Firms experienced with these products are often able to find funding for field projects through grant research and partnerships with youth and community groups.

    Erik Sweet, ASLA, is a landscape architect for David Evans and Associates in Tacoma. He has more than nine years of experience in project management, athletic field design, synthetic turf field design, landscape and irrigation design, landscape construction and construction administration.

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